The Cruciform Mind

By David Watson –

The longer I study Christian Scripture, the more convinced I am that the Christian mind is a peculiar oddity. Put differently, through what John Wesley called the “ordinances of God” – which include worship, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, the reading of Scripture, and fasting – our habits of mind become different than they were before. In this day and age, it is particularly important that we seek what might be called “cruciform” habits of mind, which will mean that we think, speak, and act in peculiar ways.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). According to Paul, then, the present transformation (metamorphoō) that God effects in our lives comes through the renewing (anakainosis) of our minds.

It’s noteworthy that the imperative is plural. In other words, Paul’s instructions in Romans 12:2 are not to one person, but to the whole church. It’s not “you” but “y’all.” The transformation of individual minds brings a change in the collective mindset of the church. With the renewing of the mind, moreover, comes an ability to discern the will of God. Therefore, it should be characteristic of the church to be able to discern God’s will. Correlatively, apart from renewal, the human mind cannot consistently discern God’s will.

I am not suggesting that Christians will always walk in lockstep with one another. What I am saying is that the transformation that God works in our minds should begin to lead us toward a common vision of our life together. To the extent that this doesn’t happen, to the extent that we cannot collectively discern the will of God, perhaps it is because we have not pursued the ordinances of God with sufficient fervor. Or, perhaps we avail ourselves too freely of influences that lead our minds away from a transformed vision. Put differently, perhaps we have too much conformity and too little transformation. I count myself as in no way immune to this intellectual illness.

Sober minded. “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13). A literal rendering of the beginning of this verse is, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind; be sober minded!” Sobriety in the ancient world can be a metaphor for spiritually enlightened thinking that allows us to see the world as it really is. This doesn’t happen on its own, however. It requires preparation – and thus we are back to the ordinances of God. Sober-mindedness means that we guard ourselves from the “drunkenness” that comes from imbibing too much of what the world has to offer and too little of the living water of Jesus Christ.

There are cruciform habits of mind. We cannot form these habits on our own, but rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to shape our thoughts, desires, and will. Here’s another way of saying the same thing: God can so shape our hearts that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the lens through which we see all the world around us. This, I think, is what Paul means when he makes the remarkable claim, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

The mind of Christ is an all-consuming attitude, a way of seeing and thinking and being in the world. On our own it is utterly beyond our grasp. We are entirely reliant on the Holy Spirit, whom we encounter in practices such as prayer, the reading of Scripture, worship, and the sacraments. We must, as Wesley insisted, attend upon all the ordinances of God.

Thinking Politically. In many cases, our first instinct as postmodern Westerners is not theological, but political. The reason for this is obvious: we do attend consistently upon the ordinances of politics. It is hard not to do so these days. We are bombarded with politics through the various forms of media we access. The world around us is bound to shape our thinking, particularly if we are not intentional about the renewal of our minds through the church’s means of grace. What’s more, especially in this time of deep polarization and mistrust, our drive to protect the political ground we’ve taken, or to take political ground from our opponents, can be quite strong. In other words, it’s not simply that the ambient culture is so deeply politicized, but political statements often evoke strong emotional – often defensive – reactions within us that keep such thoughts at the front of our minds.

For Christians, this presents a serious problem. Our national political parties do not develop their policies based upon Christian theological reflection. Of course, sometimes the values of Christians come to bear on these policies, but no party can claim that its policies unequivocally stand upon the firm foundation of Christian belief. Policies emerge from a whole host of both pragmatic and ideological concerns which may or may not have any relationship to the Christian life. What’s more, political groups at times claim Christian values and identity as a way to gain support and leverage power. As a result, they offer a distorted view of what it means to think and live as a Christian.

One might counter that every theological claim is also political. To this I would respond that every theological claim has certain political implications. I am not, however, willing to collapse theology and politics. Theology is faith seeking understanding. Politics consists of the means by which we influence communities of people toward certain ends.

One might further protest that politics has always been a part of the life of the church. No doubt this is true. Over the last few years I have become better acquainted with church politics than I ever would have wanted. To make matters worse, church politics often mirrors the politics of the surrounding culture. That is certainly the case in the United States today. Nevertheless, this doesn’t have to be so. In some cases, the church has rightly come to understand itself as a counterculture, not a mirror of the surrounding culture. This requires ongoing self-examination, confession of sin, and a strong ecclesiology.

Here’s the rub: unless we choose to abstain entirely from political life (which I am not recommending), we will have to work within the political structures and parties available to us. Once again, I’m in no way suggesting that Christians should withdraw from politics. I only want us to realize the limitations of a primarily political view of the world. We must understand our political allegiances are imperfect and contingent. There will be times when we simply must part ways with the parties we support. This will be the inevitable result of having been properly formed in the faith.

Our minds require renewal because our thought processes are broken by sin. That is the human condition. Politics cannot renew the mind. It cannot renew the church. It cannot save the world. Only God can do that. Christ taught us, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Our minds belong to God. Let us understand them thusly.

David F. Watson is the academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  He is the author of Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever (Seedbed 2017) and Key United Methodist Beliefs (with William J. Abraham) (Abingdon, 2013). Dr. Watson cohosts Plain Truth: A Holy Spirited Podcast with Dr. Scott Kisker and Maggie Ulmer.

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